Almost 100,000 miles of roads and interstate highways span across the state of Tennessee. Today, it’s easy to take for granted the system that connects rural and urban communities to each other and the rest of America. But 200 years ago, almost none of that existed. Highway See gives an in-depth look at how roads in Tennessee came to be, starting with the collective drive of citizens and public officials to better the lives of everyone in the state.
Highway See is brought to you by the Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance, which advocates for sustainable funding for road-building and other infrastructure needs in the state. TIA works with public and private interests to promote “safety, mobility, economic competitiveness, and overall quality of life” through well thought out infrastructure projects.
In this episode, host Chris Hill explains the factors of how Tennessee roads came to be.
Chris: Welcome to Highway See, the podcast where we talk about the history of Tennessee’s infrastructure, and why building better roads benefits us all.
In the 1830s, historian and essayist Thomas Macaulay penned these words, “Of all the inventions, the alphabet and the printing press excepted, those inventions which abridge distance have done most for the civilization of the species.”
I think this quote, this sentiment, sums up everything there is about the importance of roads because finding a way abridge any distance to keep us connected, it’s everything to our civilization, our society, and our development. Being connected, dependent, intermixed, that’s what makes a community, what binds it together. Humans can’t survive without communities, and communities can’t exist without the roads that keep them connected. Jason Mumpower, the comptroller for the state of Tennessee, summed it up perfectly.
Jason: I think that one of the things that we all tend to take for granted is that we get up in the morning, we go out, we get in the car, we back it out of the driveway, and we just assume we’re going to have roads to drive on.
Chris: And why should we assume that? After all, Tennessee has nearly 95,000 miles of road, 1233 miles of which is interstate. This state is uniquely positioned to be within a day’s drive of more than two-thirds of the United States. We are connected. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Let’s take a step back into our history. What exactly are roads? I know, that sounds like a silly question. We all know exactly what a road is today: the long paved thing that carries cars and lets me get from my house to wherever I need to go. But before the automobile and especially before the institution of the assembly line and mass production, roads looked very different.
As the book Memphis to Bristol: A Half-century of Highway Construction puts it, “A road is neither a path, nor trace, nor trail. Those are names for thoroughfares that serve people traveling on foot or on horseback. A road may carry such traffic, but roads are, above all, routes for wheeled vehicles. Trails, traces, and paths were trampled clear by the travelers who followed them. Roads must be built.”
To American colonists, building a road merely meant clearing a route through the forests wide enough for wagons and stagecoaches. For the modern road builder, it means so much more. And here in Tennessee, it was much, much more complex. With the state divided into three completely different types of terrain, there is no single universal method of building a Tennessee road, much less a four-lane highly traveled interstate.
For instance, back in 1775, when Tennessee pioneer Daniel Boone led a party of axemen to blaze the famed Wilderness Road to enter the Cumberland Gap, what he was really creating was a trace because no wagons could cross over the terrain until 1796 when the roads were completely reconstructed. Now, engineers have to take into consideration every aspect of the road-building, from the path it will take, to the communities it will pass through, to the timeline of construction, to the terrain it encompasses, and more. Paul Degges, Chief Engineer for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, or TDOT, illustrates this for us further.
Paul: If you look at transportation in Tennessee, it really started with animal trails. In Tennessee, there was what they called buffalo traces. So, Interstate 40 that heads between Nashville and Memphis was the route of an old buffalo trace; it ended up turning into footpaths for the Native Americans that lived in this part of the country. And then over time as the Europeans came to Tennessee and—or what would become Tennessee, those footpaths ended up growing into wagon trails. Wagon trails ended up being some of the first roads in the state.
I think a lot of people are familiar with the Natchez Trace Parkway; well documented on that road that it really has those origins that really predate the European settlers, and really predates the Native Americans through here. But once you started getting into to where you had wagon trails in the late part of the 19th century, you started seeing the formation of the road network in the state. In Tennessee, most of the roads—most of the major roads that were trying to get you over the larger distances, were built through a tax process where you had a road day. So, people that lived in communities were required to pay their dues and build the roads.
Chris: These annual events were called ‘road-making bees’ and were important social and political events in rural communities. Workmen, loaded with picks, shovels, axes, and hoes would gather at a pre-selected location at mid-morning and strategize an hour or so until everyone had arrived. Of course by ‘strategize,’ this mostly meant that the men would stand around gossiping about politics, and horses, their families, or anything else they thought of. Eventually, they’d get around to the science of road building, and elect a foreman, usually an elder, who would then not have to do any physical labor and simply supervise.
Finally, all strategizing complete, the bee would begin. Workers would painstakingly remove mud from the roadside ditches to fill in ruts, potholes, and mud puddles. They’d plow ditches if needed for drainage and grade the road. Until lunchtime that is, which would consist of a heavy enough meal that everyone would have to take a nap after eating. If you haven’t figured it out by now, this was a highly inefficient system for road building and hardly any progress would be made in these annual forays. In some cases, road maintenance was supplemented by convict labor and chain gangs until eventually, companies began contracting the work.
Paul: And so, that was a pretty common way. It dated way back into European times, overseas as well. But when roads started getting to be where they were a lot more than, you know, 20 guys with a shovel could do that, you started seeing people form companies. Nolensville Pike, Murfreesboro Pike, Dickerson Pike in Nashville, Kingston Pike in Knoxville, and just all across the state, people formed these companies, and they would go in and they would build a road and charge tolls on them. And so it was very commonplace for these companies to come in and make money. I don’t know how profitable it was at the time, but in the late 19th century that was a pretty common way of getting the major roads built.
When you start getting into the 20th century, Tennessee started to get left behind, if you will, from what was going on in the rest of the country. And there was a very, very big concern that Tennessee, economically, was not going to be able to compete with a lot of our other states. Tennessee was known as the mud hole of the US. You could go around Tennessee, but without dedicated funding for transportation on the state level, there was a perceived problem.
And so starting in the early 1910s, it really started with the bicycle associations. Bicycle transportation was coming into play. And if you look at pictures of bicycles from the turn of the 19th to the 20 century, they really look just like bicycles we have today. The great big giant wheeled front-wheel bicycles were gone, and the bicycles were very similar to what we look at today; they just weighed 100 pounds.
The bicycle associations really pushed for good transportation, the economic interest in the state that were moving freight were looking for good roads, and ultimately the Tennessee General Assembly created what is now the Tennessee Department of Transportation. It was the Bureau of Roads back in those days. And 1915 is when TDOT was created. By 1919, Tennessee had laid out a map of all of the major facilities in the state of Tennessee. It’s pretty interesting, if you look at that map today, you see a lot of the same roads that we’re driving on today, particularly here in Middle Tennessee; you can go from Nashville to Memphis down Highway 70, and that was one of the roads.
Going through most of the major county seats, there were roads connecting the county seats. So, that was the initial start, that early mapping. It coincides with what was going on, on the national level. We’re a few years behind some of the other states, but on the national level, Congress had passed legislation trying to create a national highway system and so Tennessee was trying to follow up on that. And that was the start of what we look at as modern roads today, was really started in the late nineteen-teens, and in the ’20s, you started seeing a lot of work being done.
Tennessee became a state in 1796 and for about 100 years, there really wasn’t a whole lot of road construction going on. But when you hit the early 20th century, that’s where you started seeing a whole lot more happening. The Industrial Age hit late 19th, early 20th century is when you started really seeing heavy equipment, and the need for roads to where you didn’t get stuck in the mud if you will.
Chris: The early 20th century is really when Tennessee began to buckle down and prioritize infrastructure to last for motorized vehicles and to better connect Tennessee as an industrial economic state. Bill Moore, the chairman of Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance, has essentially lived his life submerged in Tennessee’s infrastructure. He’s lived it, he’s breathed it, learned it, and he knows just about everything there is to know. Don’t believe me? Just listen to all his experience.
Bill: My name is Bill Moore, M-O-O-R-E. I currently serve as the chairman of Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance, which is a board that basically markets and lobbies for improved infrastructure spending in the state of Tennessee, in all modes of travel transportation: aeronautics, waterways, rails, transit, and highways. So, before becoming a member of that board, I served for 36 years at TDOT, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, starting in 1965 as a summer employee, when I was a college student at University of Tennessee, and then retiring as chief engineer. I spent about the last 10 years of my career with TDOT as chief engineer. During 12 years of my career, I was in the city of Jackson.
We have four regions in Tennessee—TDOT regions—one which is centered in Knoxville; region two, Chattanooga; the region three office is centered here in Nashville; and then region four—because Jackson was the geographic center of region four, the headquarters is actually in Jackson instead of Memphis, even though that does cover Memphis. Each region has 20-something counties that they look after; ninety-five counties, of course, in Tennessee. We had 21 in Jackson, so I was there for 12 years, ’81 through ’93 with the department, then I came back to Nashville and served in several positions there before I basically became chief engineer in 1994.
Chris: So, what can you tell us about roads or the US highway system in general, Bill?
Bill: Well, it’s a lot to tell there, but it started pretty much as just trails in the old days and had a few routes that went from coast to coast. I mean, they talked about the Dixie Highway that came through Tennessee, which was basically a Michigan to Florida type roadway. Of course, everybody’s heard of Route 66, the TV show they had back a lot of years ago. But there were several roads. In Tennessee, the main road was called the Memphis to Bristol Road, and it was designated by the General Assembly as State Route 1. Still carries that designation. It’s US 70 for most of the part, from Memphis pretty much through Knoxville, and then it becomes US 11W going up to Bristol. So, it was the major road, about 500 miles of it in Tennessee.
But one thing I will say about all the roadways that most people don’t realize: all of the roads that run east and west have even numbers, like I-40, US 64. Roads that go north and south have odd numbers like I-65, I-75, US 45, US 431. So, early on, there was a group of all the highway departments in the country, they got together with the Federal Highway Administration—back then called the Bureau of Public Roads—and together planned a lot of things that we now experience today. Way back in the ’20s and ’30s a lot of these things were set up. So, the big emphasis in Tennessee was the first time we had any real funding in Tennessee was when Governor Austin Peay came in; in 1923 we had our first gasoline tax. I like to call it a user fee because if you don’t have a car, and you don’t drive, and you don’t register your car, then you don’t pay any taxes on it.
Chris: The gas tax allows for Tennessee to pay for all the roads, construction, and maintenance. In fact, Tennessee has paid for its own roads without going into debt since 1923, when this tax was created.
Bill: Tennessee is a pay-as-you-go state. We have no debt. We’re one of five states that have no debt, out of 50 states. And so when the Coronavirus hit, all the revenue dropped off, a lot of these states had debt servers they had to pay. And so what little revenue they were getting in went to debt service, and so they weren’t doing anything to the roads because they basically had a mortgage to pay for money they had borrowed to finance the roads.
We’ve had a few bonds over the years to build some bridges, way back in the ’20s, and ’30s, and whatnot, but for many, many years, we have been, and all of our governors have supported, and the General Assembly has supported that we be a pay-as-you-go state. If we don’t have the money to build it, we wait until we have the money. And so that’s been, in my opinion, a very positive thing.
Chris: In 1923, when the Highway Commission and state took over funding for road maintenance and construction, there were only about 5000 miles of road in Tennessee. Now, we’ve progressed to having about 95,000 miles, in just under 100 years. Of course, the creation of such complex transportation systems didn’t just occur overnight. Here’s Paul Degges, Chief Engineer for the Tennessee Department of Transportation again, to tell us a little bit more about that history.
Paul: In the 19th century, it was really horse-and-buggy-driven and so, Tennessee was an agricultural state and the rivers were really the main means of transportation; if you go into the Northeast United States, you see many of the canals. And so from a technological standpoint, it started with canals, then the railroads came in, and you saw a lot of rail construction in Tennessee, and then in the 20th century is when you started seeing a lot of the road construction. And by 1950, railroads had started—or the late 1950s anyway, railroads had started declining and across the US even today, you probably see two or three percent of railroad track abandoned in the United States every year. The real heyday for transportation obviously started with the Interstate Era, the foundation of the modern transportation network really had its start in the nineteen-teens, 1920s, when the automobile came into play. Henry Ford’s Model T really changed the dynamic to where his goal of every American being able to own an automobile just really changed the landscape of how we use transportation.
If you look at a state like Tennessee, we were largely undeveloped before World War II and were just making some of the basic transportation investments. And then after World War II, you started seeing the South, in general, was really patterned on an automobile-centric society. And so some of the struggles we have in Tennessee today—and a lot of other southern states do—with how do we have good multimodal networks? How do we support transit, pedestrian, and non-motorized transportation? Part of our struggles are really because our foundation of our modern transportation network was the automobile-centric infrastructure that came after World War II.
Chris: It’s interesting to consider how being so automobile-centric could affect development in the south. But before the automobile was popular, bicycles also drove the need for roads. Paul explains this further.
Paul: If you think about, particularly, in the early part of this century—or the 20th century, rather—people couldn’t afford an automobile. They were new; Henry Ford was pushing for the middle class to be able to get there, but we were a long way from that, particularly here in the South. And so a bicycle as a mode of transportation was a very common mode. Bicycles just don’t go through the mud very well, particularly, the bikes were so much heavier back in those days, they just didn’t travel well on muddy roads. And so there was a big push to try to get Macadam, or a hard-paved road. So, the bicycle associations were one of the big pushes. But certainly, by the time you hit 1910, 1915, the automobile manufacturers were really making a push, and we started seeing a whole lot more opportunities for making those investments that allow people to use the early automobiles.
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Chris: So, we’ve gotten to the place where roads are starting to be built. So I asked Paul, when did we decide to build not just a highway system, but an interstate system as well?
Paul: I think you have to look at the transportation network, really, coming out of World War I is when, from a national level, the trying to create a national network of roads. You’re really—you have to talk about how you’re trying to support the economy of the United States. Roads are the big component of economic prosperity. If you looked at when we had a lot of river transportation, even in West Tennessee today, when we have to reconstruct some of the roads between some of the old ports on the Mississippi River into towns like Dyersburg and Ripley and some of those areas, you dig down that pavement, you find concrete. And they would have one lane of that traffic was concrete because all the agricultural products were going to those ports on the Mississippi River.
And that’s very common from the era in the early 20th century; agriculture was the number one economic output of the state of Tennessee, so it was those farm-to-port roads was what was really being pushed. Later, we saw a lot of rail traffic in Tennessee. Starting in the Civil War era, you started seeing a lot of railroads put in place in Tennessee. Certainly here in Nashville, Union Station. I know when I was a kid in the 1960s, there was still a lot of train traffic down at Union Station. It was waning at the time, but it was kind of neat. My father had an office kind of next to the Union Station, and every now and then, I’d come down and see a lot of the train traffic.
But a lot of the transportation network was, again, trying to get agricultural commodities onto rail, in those times. So, as time marched on, and we built the basic framework of the state highway network—and if you think about it, most communities, the county seats of the—there’s now 95 counties in Tennessee, and they were trying to get it from the county seat to other county seats, and ultimately to rail and river is how they got their commodities moved. As we moved through between World War I and World War II, and the economic collapse that happened in the late 1920s, and the recovery work that was done in the 1930s, the road construction was a big piece of it. We still let contracts in those days, but when the stock market crashed in ‘29, I know the bridge over the Cumberland River at Gallatin was actually paid for twice because the local government put bonds out for the bridge, and the economy collapsed and it never got built. And so, they actually had to do a second bond initiative to build the bridge on Highway 109 over the Cumberland River. But it was paid for twice, but built once.
So, when we got to World War II and a lot of our military leaders in Europe saw what the Germans had done in creating a really top-notch transportation network, and everybody refers to the autobahn as one of the first interstate networks. And so, when Dwight Eisenhower and others came back to the US, they really started pushing. But it took a decade from after World War II before there was really enough momentum to get the Interstate Highway Act passed in 1956. And that was really, for Tennessee, that was one of the biggest issues in bringing a modern transportation network into Tennessee.
Prior to the Interstate Era, the department largely used for large type of work, they would bring consultants in from Chicago, New York, and things of that nature. There were some here in the big cities in Tennessee, but it was really in 1956 with the passage of the Interstate Act is when we started seeing real significant investments. And when you have dedicated funding for transportation that is perpetual, that’s how you build a very, very strong program. Bond initiatives come and go, toll bridge projects, kind of, came and went, but it was really the sustained funding created through the Interstate Highway Act that allowed Tennessee to start really making the investments to build a top-notch transportation network.
Chris: This top-notch transportation network included President Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Act of 1956.
Bill: There’s 1233 miles of interstate in Tennessee. 1956, the federal government introduced and passed—and by the way, the sponsor in the Senate was Albert Gore, who was a senator from Tennessee; he was a senate sponsor—the 1956 Interstate and Defense Highway Act. And that was the first major impetus from the federal level to get money to the states and to build a access control system across the country. General Eisenhower had tried to take some troops from the east coast to the west coast, and I think it took about two months to get there.
And then of course, during World War II, he was familiar with all of the autobahns that they had in Germany. And he saw the advantage of having good—both from an economic standpoint and from a military standpoint—to have good roads across the country for quick mobility if they were needed. The first Interstate Act in ’56 allocated 41,000 miles of road across the state. The federal government actually allocated $25 billion, across all the states to construct those roads. The federal government provided 90 percent of the funding where the states had to come up with 10 percent.
And they were supposed to be completed in 13 years, so the $25 billion was supposed to be used between 1957 and 1969. Tennessee, we actually took 31 years to complete our interstate system. The last section of the original 41,000 miles—in Tennessee, we had 1047—the last section to open was Interstate 440 in 1987. Now, today—because we’ve added—we now have 1233 miles of interstate in Tennessee. Of that—that’s about one percent of the total.
As I say, there’s 95,986 total miles of roadway in Tennessee—of that, 14,408 are maintained by the Department of Transportation, by the state. The Interstate has about one percent of all the mileage in the state, yet they carry on a daily basis, over 30 percent of the daily miles driving traffic in the state, and almost all the trucks. Some of our truck traffic in the rural areas is 30 percent. We’ve even got some sections of interstate in Tennessee, such down at I-65 at Ardmore as you come in from Alabama where the truck percentage is about 45 percent. So, trucks and freight make up a huge amount of the traffic on the Interstate System. Of course, as you get into the urban areas where there’s lots more cars, the percentages go down. Probably in Nashville, you know, the average is about 15 percent of truck traffic. But like I say, in the rural areas it’s much higher. And if you’ve ever been out at night, driving on the rural interstate, all you see is trucks.
Interstate says from state to state, but actually, the amount of traffic on the Interstate System, only about 25 percent are people actually going from one state to another. So, most of the traffic is generated within the state. That might be, for example, somebody going from Franklin to Hendersonville, or somebody driving from Franklin to downtown Nashville to go to work. But they’re local trips inside the state of Tennessee.
I-40 in Tennessee, we have 452 miles of I-40 in Tennessee. Of course, it’s an interstate to go from the west coast to the east coast, and we have more miles in our state than any other state in the country, just simply because we are a long state as you know: 452 miles. Also, we have I-24, again which is an east-west interstate; we have 186 miles of I-24 in Tennessee, coming in the state at Clarksville, and then going out in Chattanooga. I-65 goes from Alabama to Kentucky; there’s 122 miles of it. And of course, I-75 begins, again, in Chattanooga and goes to the Kentucky line. There’s 162 miles of Interstate I-75 in Tennessee. We now have Interstate 840. We have I-26 up in Upper East Tennessee. We have I-69 down in Memphis, in the Memphis area. So, there’s been a lot of miles added. As I say, we’ve gone from 1047 to 1233 miles.
Chris: Over 1,200 miles of Interstate in Tennessee. And all of that had to start somewhere, so we asked Bill about where all of this started.
Bill: At first, on the Interstate Highway System—like I said, we had about 1050 miles—the first project to be completed in Tennessee, and to be started in Tennessee was I-65 at the Alabama line at Ardmore, Tennessee. And that was the first project that opened. Remember, the Act passed in ’56 and the first section of Interstate in Tennessee opened in the early ’60s. So, it took, as I say, 31 years to build it all. We originally had I-40, I-65, I-75, and these others, of course, had been added since then. But it took a long time. It was very expensive. We used to say we could build a mile of interstate for a million dollars a mile; now we can’t resurface it for a million dollars a mile. So, things have definitely gone up expense-wise.
Chris: Road building has indeed become expensive, so we asked Bill, “How do they decide what roads to build first, and which get priority?”
Bill: It’s a complex process. Number one, you have to have a need. Need has to be established. Local agencies, cities, and counties, rotary clubs, the local people have to be on board and they have to see the need, and of course, they speak to their members of the General Assembly. They obviously also contact the governor. When every governor campaigns for election, they go across the state and everywhere they go, people tell them how bad their needs are for different roads and other things, too.
But ultimately, the department transportation proposes what the roads will be and they’re approved by the General Assembly in the annual budget. TDOT produces what’s called a three-year plan. There are several phases of roadway. The initial planning is about two percent of the cost. That’s where you just establish a need, you maybe provided two or three alternatives for a roadway. And so that’s about two percent of the cost of a road. Then comes the environmental process. Every job that has federal money on it has to have a NEPA document.
Chris: National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA for short, was signed into law on January 1st, 1970.
Bill: You’ve heard of a EIS—Environmental Impact Statement—that’s the ultimate; that’s the most expensive and most complex. Some of the sections of interstate have had that, like in I-40 down in Shelby County with Overton Park. That takes about eight percent of the cost to doing a road.
Then you come to what’s called PE, Preliminary Engineering. That takes, again, about probably 10 percent, something like that, of the cost of building a road. And that can take anywhere from a year to longer, depending on the complexity of the project. Then you have the right-of-way acquisition, which depending on the amount of right-of-way to be acquired—and sometimes there are a number, over several hundreds tracks right-of-way on a new—if you’re going out on a new location where you’re not just widening a road, but you’re on a new location, such as we did on 840, Interstate 840 in Nashville—that takes several years to complete all those tracks. And that’s usually, I’d say, about 15 percent of the cost.
The remaining percentage is, of course, the construction; that’s the most expensive part. And again, depending on your—you’re in West Tennessee where everything’s flat and you basically don’t have any kind of rock, that’s one cost; you go to East Tennessee—Middle Tennessee is rolling, East Tennessee is mountainous. Cost—with a lot of rock up there they have to move, so it's much more expensive to build roads in East Tennessee—and Middle Tennessee, even—than it is West Tennessee. So, depending on where you are, the cost can vary quite a bit.
Chris: Expenses are only one aspect of how a road is created though, so we went back to ask Paul Degges, “What other factors go into building a road? What is the process from start to finish, of willing a road into existence?”
Paul: Tennessee’s geography can be challenging sometime. You know, I’ve been here 33 years, and I worked with many people early in my career that started with the department when the Interstate Program first began. And so I would hear all these different stories about how the interstates were built. Typically they would take and, when we would let a project, you would buy some farmhouse somewhere that was in the middle of the proposed road, and that’s where they would set up a construction office. And they would build the road from there, and ultimately have to bulldoze the house down.
It was a pretty intriguing—to me—to see how everybody lay these things out. And of course, in the role I’m in now, I look back and I ask the question, “Well, why did they pick that location to go through Roane County and come down Rockwood Mountain?” Or, “Why did we go over Monteagle where we did?” That’s a tough place to build a road. “When you go west out of Nashville, why did we split I-40, and the eastbound is on the south side, and we’ve got a 200-foot wide gully in the middle. Why did we make those decisions?”
You wonder how much did politics have to play in setting alignments? From an environmental and justice standpoint, were decisions made to where, did we go through neighborhoods that were considered to be blighted and the department tried to clean them up? There were laws passed after a lot of those decisions got made. In Memphis, Tennessee, the department tried to put I-40 through Overton Park. That decision ended up with the United States Supreme Court, and it put in place what’s now the National Environmental Policy Act—NEPA—and the department lost that one.
The Interstate does not go through Memphis. In fact, we built quite a few number of bridges to approach it, that never once had traffic on them and had to be tore down. So, it’s interesting how some of those decisions were made. A lot of the history has been lost to time, but sometimes we uncover stuff. I’ve got some old plans in the office that date from the 1920s. Kind of interesting to look at how things were done back in those days.
And the Interstate Era, we’ve got pretty good records on, but what we don’t know is exactly how some of those decisions got made on where things went. Some of those decisions started in Washington. If they were trying to get from Chicago to Atlanta, somebody from a much higher level was making decisions, and I suspect there was talks with our congressional delegation and with the governors. But how those decisions made are somewhat lost to time.
Today, our investments in infrastructure are driven by the grassroot support for a project. Now, grassroots comes in different aspects, so we have a program that builds what we call state industrial access roads, where we work with local communities and the state Department of Economic and Community Development in trying to recruit industry to the state. And typically those what we call first-and last-mile roads, they’re the road that goes from the main highway into an industrial park; that’s how you recruit jobs. But from the local level, local government is really trying to look, how can we recruit jobs into our community?
For other types of roads, typically, for the state highway system today, we don’t build a whole lot of what I call new roads, today. What we build are capacity expansions. We’ll go from a two-lane to, maybe, a four-or five-lane road. And those are generally grassroots. A lot of communities will tell us that they really need good access to be able to create jobs.
In the urban areas of the state, people have an expectation that we’re going to come in and build a road, that we have to do it because of congestion. And they say, “Fix the road, but get out of the way. Get those barrels out of the way. I got to get to work.” In the rural areas of the state, it’s a much different issue. And geographically there’s more rural than there is urban, and those rural people say, “You bring those barrels to our town. We want to see them.” And they’re looking for that improved access. And so it’s really grassroots. In the urban areas, the grassroots issues are: address the congestion. And so that’s the urban aspect.
In the rural areas of the state, though, it’s really, we need to have good access to be able to support a thriving economy. Again, tourism and agricultural products are big, but even today, with broadband opportunities out there, we’re starting to see investments in some of the more rural areas of the state, if they’ve got access to other types of infrastructure that can bring jobs, such as call centers, distribution hubs, and things of that nature. Remember, Tennessee is within a day’s drive of about two-thirds of the population in the United States. We are one of the very few states that has multiple cities with three Interstates running through them: Nashville has 24, 40, and 65; Memphis has 40, 55, I-69, and I-22. The Birmingham to Memphis highway ends just outside of Tennessee but in the Memphis metropolitan area; Knoxville has I-40 and I-75, but they also have I-81 coming in on one leg; Chattanooga just has 24 and 75, but they also have US 64 which is a major east-west route as well.
So logistically, Tennessee is very, very well situated to be able to provide access to, again, about two-thirds of the population in the US. And then, geographically, the Cumberland Plateau, for instance, is at an elevation that the weather is just right for, like, hydroponics and things of that—so we’ve got several hydroponics industries if you will, growing lettuce and other types of products. And the access from Tennessee to that large population of the US really makes a great opportunity for us.
Chris: A lot of traffic comes through Tennessee, and with that there comes a demand for better highways and new roads. So, we want to know what it is that motivates a community to say, “Okay. We need the road.” And then what has to happen to get that road built? Here’s Paul again with the answer.
Paul: So, in Tennessee we are a pay-as-you-go state; we do not borrow money to build roads. And there’s actually only five states that operate like we do, and we’re the largest program of those five states. The people of Tennessee are very much saying we want to keep in that vein, and the pay-as-you-go works so well, and what they tell us is that from a customer standpoint, maintain your investment—make sure our pavements and bridges are high quality, address safety—and money that’s leftover, we want you to do capacity expansion. And so where we end up with, “Well, how do you bring that forward?” Is we tell our customers, when they come knocking on our door and say, “Hey, we would like to see Road A widened, capacity expanded”—or—“A new road going from point A to point Q.”
So, we look at it, and we say, that’s a good product. We try to look at—well, what are some of the factors that we’re looking at? We look at safety, we look at the volumes on the road, we also look at local interest, environmental impacts. And we’re trying to find out, does the project that’s being proposed make good sense? If it makes good sense, that’s where we sit down with the governor and the General Assembly and we say, “We think this is a good project. We think it needs to be funded.”
Ultimately, these roads have to be paid for. And when communities come to me, what I tell them, “If it’s worth having, it’s worth paying for.” And so we look for ways to where we can work together to pay for roads. But we do have a fair amount of what we call discretionary money in our program that goes to projects. And it’s probably about three-quarters of a billion dollars a year is what we use to add capacity to the state highway network.
Chris: And of course, once a road is added to our complex state highway network, then it needs to be maintained, kept up, and cared for, especially considering how much use the roads get in our ever-growing state. In the 1960s, the US Department of Transportations, and Department of Transportations in other states were formed for this responsibility. At first, it was called Tennessee Bureau of Highways, but now we’re familiar with it as the Tennessee Department of Transportation. TDOT was established through legislation in 1972 under Governor Winfield Dunn, in an effort to connect all the different modes of transportation throughout the state.
Bill: That was in ’72 when the legislature—TDOT proposed, and the legislature approved. The governor, I’m sure, presented that it would be a department of transportation. And again, that was to address all the different modes because aeronautics, we’ve got a number of airports in Tennessee, not just highways, we got a number of small airports across the state in addition to, of course, the four major areas that we have. And the tri-cities has a pretty good public airport there, too. So, transit was beginning to be more important. TDOT supports transit across the state. We have quite a high percentage of people that use transit.
Chris: With a state length of 440 miles and geography ranging from mountainously rocky to soft Mississippi riverbank, having reliable and versatile transportation is pivotal to Tennessee’s success. But as Paul said earlier, sometimes the state’s geography makes having these roads, bridges, and paths we rely on difficult to obtain.
Next time on Highway See, we’ll go further back in time to the first roads built in Tennessee, the evolution of road and highway construction, what it was like to travel the state and the nation before the Interstate System existed, and we’ll even talk about that great cultural companion of the Interstate System: the great American road trip.
Thanks for listening to Highway See. We hope you’ve enjoyed the sights and sounds of Tennessee’s highway history. We’ll be back next time to see more history, more highways, and a lot more reasons why infrastructure is important to everyone. For more details on Tennessee’s road and bridge infrastructure and to keep up with the latest on the podcast, visit highwaysee.com. That’s highway S-E-E dot com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you choose to listen to podcasts.
I’ve been your host Chris Hill, and we hope you’ll see the highway when you’re on the road. Highway See is presented by Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance and was recorded and produced in association with HumblePod. The creator and executive producer is Susie Alcorn; our producer and host is Chris Hill. Our writer is Nikki Sneed; our audio engineer is Allan Carlisle, and our guests for this episode were Jason Mumpower, Paul Degges, and Bill Moore.